Brighton is pretty damned far out of the way for a Londoner like myself to visit to see a show, and normally if I’m going there it’s for a day of sun and ocean air. None of that was on offer on Sunday, though, when I forced myself through freezing temperatures (and little bits of fluffy snow) to hit a 2:30 matinee at the New Venture Theater (absolutely walkable from the station but also directly served by the #6 bus from the station). I didn’t know a thing about the play “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found” and had really pried myself out mostly to see a friend involved with the show. But …
The show starts out seeming like some kind of reactionary, overhysterical response to the pressures of modern life. You lose your cell phone, you work too long hours, the commute gets you down. Some people commit suicide. And our lead character, Charlie (Scott Roberts), seems a case in point: pushed positively to the brink and apparently on his way down. Is his fainting episode on the tube the start of him trying to get his life to a better state? Or has he entered some kind of strange, parallel world a la Being John Malkovich? And if he’s stealing things from people that are trying to help him, is he actually not a very nice guy? What kind of life has he been leading, anyway?
As things settled down, it became clear that this wasn’t entirely a world in which the rules had gone all Alice in Wonderland, but Charlie seemed to be losing it, and the experience of time and memory was becoming pretty fluid. I finally became convinced that what I was seeing really was a crackup, but not one that was going to be pushed into a zone of false-feeling comedy (despite the warped humor that bled into many scene) or utterly unbelievable “and now we discover it’s all a dream.” It had the horrible, chest-squeezing pressure of too many bad promises, bad decisions, and bad debts all coming due at the same time. Eventually the chaos of the many subordinate characters began to clarify, and about two of them bubbled to the front: a forensic pathologist (Emmie Spencer) and a small-time criminal with a specialty in identity theft (Sam Parsons). Who was telling the truth of Charlie’s future? How was this all going to end? Was there a way for him to really drop out and start over?
As a sort-of modernized Death of a Salesman (as script-doctored by David Mamet), How to Disappear did a great job of looking at the many strange complexities of modern life – companies that want to pretend to be your friends; governments that don’t notice if you’re dead; the strange interweavings of paperwork, relationships, and technology – and manages to build a psychological thriller that had me utterly unsure until the last minute where it was all going to go. And it was really, really grounded in reality, despite the non-linear structure. All performed against the simplest of set dressings (a wall, a bed, a table/desk/examining table), the characters breathed and bickered and flailed and displayed the sort of casual indifference for other people’s lives that I feel in many way is the stain on London’s heart. You are here and suffering, but no one really cares. All that we care is that you remember to pay your bills and don’t do anything stupid to slow down our commutes to work. And if this is life, really, then who wouldn’t want to just decide, now and then, to take the option and just disappear forever?
(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, February 24th, 2012. It continues through Saturday, March 2nd, and may have an extension of one day if there is enough demand. It delivered stunning value for £9.)